The Way We Never Were

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The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap  
Author(s) Stephanie Coontz
Publisher Basic Books
Publication date 10-06-1993
Pages 391
ISBN 0465090974

Without fail, each presidential election we are treated to doomsday outbursts from outraged politicians and their constituents, touting a desire for America to return to the golden days of yesteryear. The days of hoop skirts, moral superiority, malt shakes and guys that still say “golly gee.” But are the good ole days a realistic goal or simply a lofty romanticizing of the past? Author Stephanie Coontz explores the American obsession with the good old days and the nostalgia trap in her book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. By examining two centuries of American family dynamics she manages to shred some of the most pervasive myths and down-right lies that plague American families. With each generation you are bound to hear someone referencing how moral values have deteriorated, the family unit is fractured, and times were better decades ago. Stephanie Coontz easily shatters those myths by utilizing historical facts, coupled with sociology and psychology based facts.

The 391 page book is separated into eleven chapters. The first three chapters focus on defining family crisis, American families in the 1950’s and myths about gender, social dependence, interdependence, the dangers of independence and interdependence, and the growing importance of love that evolved in the 1950s. The third chapter discusses masculine and feminine identity and the contradictions of love. One of the most common myths dispelled in the first three chapters is the myth that Americans have wholly forgotten about extended family kinship, and have allowed the “parent-child bonds to lapse.” According to Coontz, in 1993 (when this book was released) 54% of adults regularly visit their parents, and 68% regularly speak with their parents via telephone. Over 90% claim to have a close relationship with their mother, while 78% say that they’re quite close to their grandparents. According to statistical evidence, it appears that family units have actually grown closer, not further apart. To suggest otherwise is purely fictional (pg. 43).

The next three chapters “We Always Stood on Our Own Two Feet,” “Strong Families, the Foundation of a Virtuous Society: Family Values and Civic Responsibility,” and “A Man’s Home is His Castle: The Family and Outside Intervention,” focus on the common myths of self-reliance, the New Deal and family, and the common myth that family values and a virtuous society have all but vanished. Millennials are constantly reminded by baby boomers that in their day (and previous generations), people worked harder and never asked for a handout. Using historical data, Coontz proves this myth to be inaccurate as well. She cites the many bills passed in the early 19th century that benefitted poor pioneers that would have ordinarily starved to death without the help of government handouts. Coontz states that “…self-reliance is one of the most cherished American values,” but just how self-reliant American’s were in the past is grossly over exaggerated. Another popular myth that emerged in the 1980's was the myth of the erosion of a virtuous society and family values. Politicians touted that the past 20 years had given way to a society plagued with immoral families, very similar to the way Americans panicked during the Gilded Age. Both moments in history were met with unobtainable moralistic goals. During this time, families are also faced intensified scrutiny of their private lives. This unrealistic expectation of family moral values made “private relations more problematic than ever” (pg. 121).

The final four chapters tackle controversial topics of marriage, sex, reproduction - looking at parenting from a realistic perspective, the myths of the black family collapse, and manufactured “family values” myths of the 1970’s and 1980’s. The dispelled myths of the collapse of the black family is very timely, considering this dooms day narrative is on constant rotation on 24/7 news channels. Coontz argues that this myth feeds into the racist stereotypes of the black family, and largely ignores the complexities and diversity of the African-American family. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of blaming the “disintegration of the black family” for the economic and social distress that African-Americans face; a trend that occurs every decade or so, has occurred for over 200 years. It’s obvious that a book such The Way We Never Were is very timely and still remains relevant today. Coontz manages to cover many regurgitated arguments that aren’t only spouted by politicians, but also by our colleagues, family and friends. Arguments from working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers, helicopter parenting, the erosion of family values, etc. Coontz argues that despite the so-called “crisis in the family,” and constant societal encouragement to become more individualistic, most Americans crave close familial relationships and actively pursue those tight bonds. To suggest otherwise is simply pessimistic thinking.

The Way We Never Were is a fascinating read, filled with statistical and historical facts that truly engages the reader from beginning to end. Though Coontz manages to cover several broad subjects, such as feminism, parenting, black familial myths, morals, love and gender roles, the book never feels rushed or lacking in in-depth research. Coontz never chastises or speaks condescendingly toward Americans who have bought into the artificial façade of American families. Instead, she factually shatters the myth that past American families were idyllic and perfect. Many of the trials and tribulations that families face in the twenty-first century were also common issues that families from the past experience. However, for some reason, we tend to romanticize the past, rather than pointing out the glaring difficulties and less than idyllic situations. In many ways, the past was darker and less inviting as our current environment.

Coontz’s sources are as diverse as the chapters in her book. She relies upon Newsweek magazine, historical biographies and autobiographies, women’s history scholarly writings, parenting magazines, political science magazines, pop-culture magazines, and newspapers to name a few. At the end of The Way We Never Were, she breaks down her sources per chapter, rather than the traditional bibliography or annotated bibliography. The Way We Never Were does not contain pictures, maps, graphs, or any form of artwork, yet it manages to maintain the readers attention despite the lack of imagery. Though it relies heavily on statistical and historical information, this book does not read as a purely academic book. Coontz manages to blend the impossible; academic, scholarly facts with entertainment. Dispelling common myths that most Americans believe to be factual, makes Coontz’s book provocative, stimulating, and brilliant; thereby making The Way We Never Were a must read.